By Josh Hughes
The past few times that I’ve been in Washington, it’s almost always been a very fast paced experience. Thus far, this trip is not proving to be any different. Today began with an early morning academic session, focused primarily around how we can elevate political discourse here in the United States. After a presidential election marred by dirty tactics, blatant lies from major party candidates, and general negativity, an increase in civil discourse would be a welcome change moving forward. This message tied in really well with our afternoon activity: a tour of several
national monuments in the bracing Washington winter. It was incredible to see the Marine Corps Memorial, Vietnam and Korean War memorials, the Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, and just spend some time around the Mall.
What’s made this trip stand out to me thus far is the way I’ve felt. This is a fast paced trip, much like my others to DC, but I’ve never spent so much time here contemplating. What’s more, on this trip, I’ve had some markedly different reactions to the awe-inspiring monuments in Washington.
The outcome of the 2016 election sank hooks into my heart in a way that I didn’t think possible, and in a way that I’m still working on fully understanding. I suspect that I’ll never fully know what when on in 2016, or why it affected me in such a profound way. I do know that over the past two months, I’ve began to question what it means to be ‘American,’ what my role is in a shared national identity. I used to be an institutionalist, I’m certainly not anymore. I’ve really been struggling with this in my head, and I had a few experiences today that really brought that to the surface
In the past, when I’ve gone to these monuments, I have always been overcome in a gut-reaction wave of unconditional, exorbitant patriotism. I have always been proud to be an American, but it was those moments, feeling small in front of the Lincoln Memorial that made me swell in patriotic satisfaction. That didn’t happen this time. Instead, when we approached the Vietnam War Memorial, I found myself thinking about the reasons behind the war, why it happened, and the unintended consequences. At the Lincoln Memorial, I thought about Lincoln’s agenda for Reconstruction and the long-term political effects that are still being felt from that today. At the Korean War Memorial,
I reflect on the problematic nature of American Imperialism and the notion of the USA as a ‘global police force.’
The last election has left my fate in our nation deeply shaken, and I remain sincerely pessimistic about any potential positive future for the United States of America. As I viewed the monuments in DC, instead of swelling with unthinking pride, I instead turned to critical thinking. For that, I suppose I ought to be thankful for the opportunity to look more analytically at our ‘state.’ I suspect that these moments of reflection will continue in the lead up to the 58th Presidential Inauguration.
For me at least, there was a happier ending for our tour. Our final stop was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. monument. The monument is new, dedicated in 2013 by President Obama, just 45 years after King’s assassination. I found myself thinking about the incredible change that happened in that (relatively) short amount of time. When King was marching, when he was in that Birmingham jail cell, did he ever think that his own children would grow to see an African-American president? As we walked out in the dimming sunlight, I was emboldened by King’s quote, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”